The bureaucrat and bureaucracy revisited

Toby Elwin Blog Archive, Organization Behavior 2 Comments

Max Weber (1864 – 1920) was a German sociologist, political scientist, and economist and was an admirer of forms of organizations found in German government circles.  His views on bureaucracy, when revisited, provide an interesting set of implications, my comments, if any, are in brackets:

  1. Each office has fixed duties
  2. Impersonal rules and regulations apply to governing conduct [most HR handbooks]
  3. A hierarchy of offices with graduated levels of authority coordinates efforts [executive suite and management layers]
  4. Reliance placed on written communication and files of documents [documented process/procedure and knowledge management]
  5. Employment is a full time career for the members of the organization [also known as a professional]
  6. Officials appointed to office by their superiors [performance reviews]
  7. Promotion based on merit [360 degree performance reviews]

Seems there is a lot of carryover from Max Weber’s 20th century observations.

Is Bureaucracy Bad?

Bureaucracy is important to manage risk.  If an organization grows too quickly there is risk in an ability to perform work in a repeatable consistent way; very necessary to deliver quality goods and services at a good price.  As organizations grow, those one-off solutions that may have been needed in the early days can now cripple an organization.

Bureaucracy provides investors and customers accountability.

Where bureaucracy is bad when it stifles ideas and drowns people’s motivation.  When layers upon layers of processes, rules, and approvals become an excuse for active management, your work force disengages; your customers become a distant nuisance; and the greater danger:  you exist to assure the firm’s owners and shareholders are taken care above delivering to the customer.

Where latest management continues to plead for innovation, does a bureaucrat or bureaucracy enable or disable innovation?  Certainly growth needs to be scalable, but growth built on a deck of cards is not stable.  Bureaucracy can unleash innovation by letting people understand their role and create a sense of shared responsibility, but management and leadership must remain active.

Bureaucracy is the combined organizational structure, procedures, protocols, and set of regulations in place to manage activity, usually in large organizations.

As opposed to adhocracy, it is often represented by standardized procedure (rule-following) that guides the execution of most or all processes within the body; formal division of powers; hierarchy; and relationships, intended to anticipate needs and improve efficiency.  Wikipedia

Structure, protocols, and regulations with standardized procedures?  That’s not bad, is it?  If the bureaucrat takes the place of management, yes.  If bureaucracy takes the place of leadership, yes.

The Best Management Is Engaged Management

The best leaders create a vision each person, employee, customer, and shareholder sees themselves as part of.

Revisit what bureaucracy can mean, not what it has come to mean.  One person’s bureaucracy is another’s hierarchy.  You’ll hear someone positively say, “we have a decision-making hierarchy” or “approval hierarchy”.

Rarely is it positive to hear someone say “we have a bureaucratic process” or “bureaucrats set our strategy for what to do” or “bureaucracy helps us manage risk

No doubt I got some things wrong, or left out some important ideas.  Please let me know what you think and suggestions you have for me to add value.

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Comments 2

  1. You could save that bureaucracy helps us manage risk. But bureaucracy is a risk itself for the growth of an organization. I think adding value is more important that bureaucracy. You have clearly explained the article good work!

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      Author

      Bureaucracy in an organization may save itself from irrational shifts.

      I agree bureaucracy is a risk to growth, but there might bureaucratic benefits. Slowing things down for due diligence and political (as an organization perspective) alignment may mitigate risk.

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